( Independent on Sunday ) |
Interview with Vanessa-Mae
Vanessa-Mae's hand-span hips, perfect skin and wide-eyed Bambi gaze do not make her popular amongst female
journalists. A standard feature of interviews with the fiddle-playing international glamour-kitten is a snidey little
complaint to the effect thatshe makes other women feel like a cross between a rhino and a Chieftain tank. Which
doesn' t seem quite fair; after all, it's hardly her fault. First of all, surely when you meet someone whose waist has
a similar circumference to one of your thighs, thesensible thing to do is not to draw national attention to this
unfortunate fact. Plus, whingeing that someone's looks are much too attractive must be much the same in
principle as complaining that they are ugly (though somehow far more politicallycorrect, and easier to get away
But then again, she does let herself in for it (or, at any rate, someone with a flair for controversial marketing lets
her in for it). The publicity shots her PR lady dishes out show her posing in what appears to be a couture version
of the string vest,and either the shot was taken on a cliff-top in a force 10 gale, or there was a wind machine in
play close by. And for weeks, it was impossible to move around London without being confronted by
Vanessa-Mae's torso, emerging from the sea fetchinglyoutlined in a clinging, soaking-wet, filmy white garment,
clutching her violin (does this girl not feel the cold, for heaven's sake?), on a poster promoting her hit album The
Considerable fuss was generated by this poster campaign, something of a new departure for a violin virtuoso (it's
hard to imagine, say, Yehudi Menuhin whipping his kit off). So what a surprise to find that Vanessa-Mae is
looking positively demure, asshe floats into the EMI offices and settles into an enormous pink-and-blue squashy
throne that seems to be constructed out of heavy-duty blotting paper (not a prop chosen deliberately; it just
happened to be there). And here we go again: "She makes mefeel enormous," whimpers the PR lady, sotto voce -
an elfin creature who looks about a size eight.
With her high cheekbones, olive skin and long, black hair, Vanessa- Mae looks uncannily like Disney's version of
Pocohontas. Today she is covered from collar-bone to ankle, in a long purple velour skirt, purple T-shirt, and cute
little crocheted creamcardi festooned with slender ribbons. But despite this unexpectedly granny-like fashion
statement, she is not complaining about previous raunchification of her image. "I was amazed by the way some
people found the poster so sexy," she says smoothly. "Iwas happy with what happened then. Everything I do
designates a time in my life. All the time I'm changing as an artist and as a person."
The poster hoo-ha was almost, but not quite, enough to obscure the heated debate among music buffs as to
whether she is Any Good. The jury remains out. Purist critics can be very sniffy about the mix of classical and
pop, trad violin and electric violin(the official term is "techno-acoustic fusion") that have made Vanessa-Mae
famous. And EMI's decision to devote considerable resources to developing her image led to a chorus of
unmelodious bitching about "hype" and "marketing" when The Violin Playercame out (though the fact remains
that there is a certain amount of hope for lesser mortals in the notion that one can become a global superstar
simply by being Not Bad). Sniffy critics, however, barely ruffle her air of calm. "It was a risk for me tomake an
album like that," she says. "I could have taken the easy life and just done classical, but I felt very strongly about
the album, my first pop album, the first time that I'd fused so many influences. I was very proud when it was in the
charts in25 countries at once. I was just glad to see there were that many people out there who had such an
open-minded view of music." (She manages to mention, extremely smoothly, that 25-country statistic three times
in the course of half an hour.)
But despite any unfair advantages her pulchritude and willingness to appear in skimpy garments might confer, the
global success of The Violin Player (in 25 countries at once, apparently) must say something positive about her
abilities. And then thereare the bucketloads of awards she has swept up, the sell-out concerts at the Royal
Festival Hall and Albert Hall, and a string of youthful triumphs (for example, youngest ever, at 13, to record the
Tchaikovsky and Beethoven violin concertos, though itprobably helped a bit that her family owned a classical
recording label, and, bizarrely, youngest ever, at 16, to address the Oxford Union). All of which is not bad going,
when one' s contemporaries are lying around picking their spots, reading Sugarmagazine and worrying about their
exam results. After all, she is only 17, though she has a poise and ageless quality that could pass for much older.
Which is hardly surprising; she has had to grow up fast and develop the resources to cope with a gruelling
schedule that would have most people begging for mercy. "On my record tour last year, I went to 35 countries,
which is quite a lot. I went totowns and cities which I never knew, with funny names," she says. "In January this
year we went on the world tour and we visited about 50 different cities in three months. Then the summer tour
that I did, I did a week of non- stop concerts in Austria andanother week of non-stop concerts in Germany."
So, if it's Thursday, it must be Dresden? "It's definitely like that. I've spent the last two weeks on a tour bus. But I
don't mind, I'm a bit of a touring animal. When I'm on tour that is the greatest thrill for me, playing to a live
audience. It's agreat buzz. But you do live out of a suitcase. I don't even bother to unpack. My housekeepers iron
my clothes and they don't put them back in the wardrobe, they put them back in the suitcase, it's ridiculous." This
kind of lifestyle, though, issomething she has been used to for years. Born in Singapore, to Thai and Chinese
parents, she began studying music, initially the piano, at the age of three, adding the violin when she was five.
She moved to Britain at four with her mother, a lawyer andsemi-professional pianist, was competing nationally by
eight, and studied for six months in China. She went professional at 12, and left school and signed with EMI when
she was 14. She went on her first professional tour when she was 12 and ever sincethose cases have stayed
packed. Home is London, where she lives with her mother, stepfather, and four Lhasa Apso dogs (who "miss her
but get used to it" when she's away).
Doesn't she get exhausted? Oh, no, not really, she says (though she is "too busy" for a boyfriend). "I much prefer
it when I'm on tour and I don't have a break, because I get on a roll. And it's something that I enjoy doing. The
stage is the bestexperience in the world. It's a great compliment to be able to share the music, because people can
hear my album but they don't get to make the connection in the same way as when it's one-to-one." It's difficult to
imagine making one-to-one contact in apacked Albert Hall, but still.
Did she miss - or rather, isn't she missing - her childhood and adolescence? "I've had the best of both worlds. I
had my fair share of going to school, going to parties. I feel normal. I like people when I meet them, they like me.
To me that's normal.I could have started my career later - now at 17, or at 25, but I think I've had the benefit of
Does this eerily poised creature ever get scared or nervous, as she flits from stage to stage around the world?
"When I was 10 I made my first big appearance, that was a bit daunting," she concedes. " But I don't really suffer
from nerves. Sometimes I'llsay I'm a bit hyper or over-excited, but I don't start trembling."
The only thing that even slightly piques her is to ask if her youth is her main asset. "Okay, people picked up on
the fact that I was young, but I was never conscious of it. When I was hailed as a prodigy, okay, I was a prodigy,
but people never said`she's good for 12,' or `good for 13', they said `she's good because she's good'. A
professional is a professional, I wasn't just a fun package. Professors, colleagues, people I worked with, never
made excuses for me being a young child. In a workingenvironment they treated me like an adult." Youthful good
looks, she says, don't sell records. "When people listen to my album, they don't know how old I am, they don't
know what I look like. They just listen to the music."
Oh yes, the music. Her new pop single is her own adaptation of a traditional composition by Bruch, "I'm a doun
for lack of Johnnie"; her new album The Classical Album 1 features Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and more Bruch.
Both are out later this month. Tothe untutored ear (a usefully enormous potential market) they are both really
The Classical Album 1; a title with plenty of scope for sequels, that. Is she going to keep going at this pace
indefinitely? Yes, says this pretty, sweet-faced, gentle-voiced, charming little automaton. "I like touring, I like
making records, it's whatI've known all my life. For me it's a normal life, though other people might think it's
extraordinary. I don't feel I've missed out on anything. Anyway, I've still got plenty of teenage years left ahead of
And she floats off, 17 going on 35, to be photographed for the Thai edition of Vogue.
©1996 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.
HESTER LACEY, Interview with Vanessa-Mae., Independent on Sunday, 10-06-1996